You can’t keep religion out of politics

Signpost: Religion / politics

Signpost: Religion / politicsReligion and politics are inexorably linked and we should respond to that through debate and democracy, not through attacking religion.

There are as many different reasons for entering politics as there are people who enter politics. Some see an injustice that they must correct. Some are personally affected by a policy and wish to change it. Some don’t care about policy as long as they have power or wealth. And some wish to shape the world as their religious beliefs tell them it should be, and that is not always a bad thing.

Politics and religion have always been intertwined and there are many political movements that emerged from religious roots. Of course there are as many religious viewpoints as there are non-religious, and so we see both Christian Socialism which has shaped the Labour party since the 1960s and at the same time we see the Conservative party full of Christians with right-wing policies. Religion is no guarantee of good or bad policies any more than atheism is but there is overlap between religious and non-religious policies and ideals so that religious roots may have no impact on whether a policy is considered good or bad by someone who is not religious.

I believe that religion and state should be separate. I think that when the state has an official religion, that religion is likely to be imposed on others by mandating prayers, services or ceremonies as part of government business and perhaps in other areas. We see lots of examples of this in the UK with prayers at the start of parliament sessions, and a religious oath before giving testimony in a court of law. (Although it is possible to opt out of this now.) I believe that in a multicultural multi-faith society this is wrong. Instead all government and all public services ought to be secular, without preventing anyone from following their religion. If politicians wish to pray about their duties I don’t have a problem with that, but like  the councillor who recently won a court case to prevent prayer from being incorporated in the official agenda of council meetings, I believe that it should happen outside of the official government process. I believe that laws which impose a religious belief on us are a bad thing. I do not believe that government should impose any religious beliefs about who may marry who, or allow discrimination based on sexuality or any other attribute. I wish that religious politicians would not try to impose their morality on other people but instead stick to ensuring equality and justice for all.

For people who are raised in a religious environment there is unlikely to be any difference between their opinions formed through their upbringing and those that spring from their religion and so even if they wanted to, they could not separate the two. In any case, we cannot ask that people’s opinions are not shaped by their religion as to do so is to deny freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and freedom of expression which are all basic human rights. We must be allowed to think and believe freely. In a democracy people from any viewpoint should have the right to stand for election and to represent their voters if elected. Since we cannot prevent religion from shaping people’s opinions, the only way to oppose bad policies is to elect people of a different viewpoint and out-vote the policy. Of course in some cases this is impossible, such as in the case of Anglican bishops with a place in the House of Lords. I do not believe that bishops should have an automatic right to be in the House of Lords, but then it is not democratic anyway and the whole thing needs reform.

It is common to see people oppose a policy because the politician behind it is religious. I think this is disingenuous. Bad policy should be opposed because it is bad policy, not because of where it came from. If the only reason behind a policy is religion with no other factors then yes by all means oppose it on that basis, but if a Christian politician proposes a policy that you disagree with but has reasons other than their faith, attack the reasons and not their faith. To attack a policy merely because the politician behind it is religious is a bad argument and based on bigotry not reason.


Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

5 thoughts on “You can’t keep religion out of politics”

  1. My perception is that most politicians who wave their religion about are Tories or the like. Politics is hard enough without giving tacit justification to faith-based reasoning.

    1. My point is that there is faith based reasoning on all sides, even if it is the Tories that mostly shout about it. How a person thinks is a matter of fundamental human rights, it’s not a case of justifying it, but pointing it out.

  2. Hi Steve

    “To attack a policy merely because the politician behind it is religious is a bad argument and based on bigotry not reason.”
    I think this is absolutely true – an attack on a politician because they are religious is just an ad hominem argument which doesn’t deserve any credit.

    But I’ve been coming to the conclusion recently that you can’t just separate “religion” from “ethics” that easily. The whole reason Christian ethics works at all is, IMO, because it is true. I don’t think you can divorce the truth of the Christian message from the truth of the Christian morality, if that makes sense.

    “I wish that religious politicians would not try to impose their morality on other people but instead stick to ensuring equality and justice for all. ”

    Now this is interesting. You’re assuming that equality and justice for all are good things. Can you please explain to me, from a secular / sceptic / atheist point of view, how you come to that conclusion? And can you please explain to me how you would handle it if, as a society, we decided that actually those things weren’t good?

    Let me give you a (far-fetched) example. The health reforms – obviously a bad thing, right? Immoral, would you say? – But what if you asked everyone in the country to vote on them, and 60% of people voted for them. What then? Would that be considered moral, or immoral?

    How about some Islamic countries, where people can be stoned to death for breaking the law. Is that moral, or immoral? It’s the law of the land, they knew what they were getting into. 

    I suppose my point is that what you are arguing for, i.e. keeping religion out of public life altogether, may not have good consequences.

    The other thing is, this country was based upon Christian values almost from the get-go. I think the whole reason we have a system of laws in this country which is somewhat ‘moral’ is because of that influence, and I’d hate to see it disappear.

    For example, before Christmas I went to a talk where a guy called Nick Spencer was talking about Christianity and Politics (it was a King James Bible 400th year anniversary thing). He made the point that the idea rulers (i.e. Kings and Queens) should be under the same law as other people was not an obvious one. (Just take a look around the world to see examples). But in England at least, it’s been part of law for nearly a millenium. The reason given was, Genesis 1:27 – that all people were / are created in the image of God. So, that particular law, which we take for granted now, was explicitly based on the Bible. There are other examples.

    There’s a great quote which I originally heard in the talk I mentioned from John Locke which I think sums it up pretty well:

    “He that travels the roads now, applauds his own strength and legs that have carried him so far in such a scantling of time; and ascribes all to his own vigour; little considering how much he owes to their pains, who cleared the woods, drained the bogs, built the bridges, and made the ways passable; without which he might have toiled much with little progress.”

    Anyway, I’ve gone on far too long already, apologies for the long quote!

    – Phill

  3. I agree that the state should be secular, that there should be no religious oaths, or prayers as part of government. I also think that religion should be kept out of legislation.

    I don’t have a problem with religious people being politicians as long as they remember that their religious beliefs are personal, and shouldn’t drive policy. They are elected to represent all their constituents, not just the ones who share the same beliefs.

    One example of an MP who gets this wrong is Nadine Dorries, her latest idea of teaching abstinence is straight out of the evangelical religious right playbook. It failed terribly in the USA and fuelled a rise in teen pregnancies and STDs, because it made the teaching of ignorance acceptable. If she is prepared to push her beliefs as bad policy, then I’m going to mock both.

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